There’s a Whole Foods down the street from my house that sells beautiful bananas, in a display that includes a brief explanation of their “Environmentally Responsible” label. Increasing numbers of Americans are willing to pay more for the “organic” label, due to concerns about the health and safety of our food supply. But the bananas aren’t “organic”. What makes them different, and why does it matter?
I discovered the answer simply by chance. It was January, and I had left Massachusetts for Costa Rica, where I was spending my sabbatical learning more about sustainable agriculture. We picked up our rental at the San Jose airport and left the city, and drove out onto the vast central plains and away from the main touristy areas. Because the country’s major highway is only two lanes the travel was slow, and it took us several hours to get to EARTH University, our home-away-from-home
Eager to rest, we happily drove onto campus, only to be stopped when the road was blocked by a semi-automated conveyor, carrying a seemingly endless supply of what turned out to be bananas, covered in blue plastic. The bananas continued past our apartment morning, noon, and night. What was their story, and what else was happening on campus?
EARTH University offers an undergraduate education in sustainable agriculture to students from over 40 countries, many from economically-disadvantaged communities. Indeed, the diversity on campus is impressive. EARTH’s educational model is student-centered and based in experiential learning, teaching the students how to be leaders, how to be entrepreneurs, and how to solve problems. After graduation, the students are encouraged to return to their home countries to put into practice the skills they’ve learned to help their communities develop sustainably.
EARTH also has a strong commitment to sustainability. The campus is vast, almost 8,500 acres, and includes tropical rainforests that sequester enough carbon to help the university remain carbon neutral. The students aren’t allowed to have cars, and as a result they can be seen walking and biking the long distances across campus. The faculty and staff prefer the solar-paneled golf carts!
Over the next two months I explored EARTH, learning from both the faculty and the students. Here are some of the things that inspired me:
- Sustainable Agriculture: First and foremost, EARTH teaches students how to grow food sustainably, including how to close loops, conserve soil, and improve yield with minimal synthetic fertilizers. (Because the school focuses on tropical agriculture, water conservation techniques aren’t emphasized.) Students learn how to solve problems inexpensively and sustainably.
- Innovation and Entrepreneurship: As with agriculture, students learn by doing. In this case, the university gives the students a loan for a business that must be paid back with interest, allowing the students to hone their entrepreneurial skills.
- Community Outreach: Students at EARTH learn to help farmers solve problems inexpensively, as most farmers in developing countries are unable to afford high-tech solutions. The students are also encouraged to give back by helping the local community.
- Waste Reduction: EARTH’s commitment to sustainability is especially visible in their efforts to reduce the amount of waste produced on campus. All faculty, staff, and students are required to spend part of their time at EARTH sorting through the various waste streams. As a result, everyone learns how to properly dispose of all forms of waste, and less waste is produced overall.
- Closing Loops: Closing loops is probably the most important aspect of sustainable agriculture. In industrial agriculture, animals and plants are grown separately, and as a result both systems require heavy inputs (e.g. nutrients, food) and produce many outputs (i.e. waste). Sustainable agriculture closes these loops, integrating animals and plants into a system that more closely mimics nature and results in less waste.
- Crop Diversity: Healthy systems are diverse. While industrial farms use monocultures to grow food as efficiently as possible, sustainable agriculture relies on biodiversity to prevent against pest outbreaks. EARTH produces an astounding number of crops, both to educate students about a variety of farming methods as well as for consumption in the campus cafeteria. In addition, EARTH’s citrus orchard hosts genetic diversity used in research and for future protection against potential citrus crop diseases.
- Chocolate Farming and Production: When you think of the world’s best chocolate, what country comes to mind? Belgium? Switzerland? Chocolate is grown in tropical countries often by farmers who lack access to the expensive machinery involved in production, thus preventing them from realizing much of the profits. EARTH is trying to rectify this situation by experimenting with inexpensive solutions.
Serendipitously, Hubby had to travel back to Boston in February, and decided to pick up lunch at Whole Foods. As he strolled through the produce section he did a double-take…. The bananas were from EARTH, and had likely passed right by our Costa Rican apartment!
So what DOES that “Environmentally Sustainable” label mean? Sustainability refers to the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Many mistakenly think sustainability is only about environmental issues. However, true sustainability also requires economic and social sustainability (i.e. the “triple bottom line”).
Enter EARTH’s commercial banana plantation. EARTH’s bananas are “sustainable” because they are:
- Environmentally sustainable: EARTH’s bananas aren’t organic, but they do implement many environmentally friendly agricultural practices. For example, many commercial banana plantations use herbicides to keep weeds from outcompeting the bananas, but EARTH has found that letting the understory grow results in less soil erosion and the need for fewer synthetic fertilizers. Tropical forests surround the fields, increasing biodiversity (making birds happy!) and reducing the need for chemical pesticides. The large amounts of organic waste thrown away by most commercial banana plantations are used to make compost, resulting in healthier soil and plants. Even the plastic bags used at EARTH are different, using a garlic/hot pepper pesticide and are ultimately recycled into packing material.
- Socially sustainable: EARTH’s workers are paid fair wages, receive benefits, and have educational and professional development opportunities.
- Economically sustainable: The commercial plantation is economically viable, and helps to support the college’s educational mission. The vast majority of EARTH’s students are on financial assistance, due in large part to the profitability of the banana plantation.
Why is this important?
I’m from Iowa. (Obviously). Home of corn…and soybeans….and hogs….and cattle….and chickens…. Farming is big business in Iowa and is the backbone of the state’s economy. There are a lot of people on this planet, and I am grateful to farmers for the food they provide. (A shout out to my farmer friends back home!)
But, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of industrial agriculture on the local environment. Less than 1% of Iowa’s prairies and 4% of its wetlands remain. Nearly all of the surface waters are polluted with pesticides, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and sediment. The nutrients from fertilizers creates dead zones in water (areas low in oxygen), and are a major threat to the fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. The city of Des Moines, which pays almost a million dollars each year to remove the nutrients to make the water safe to drink, sued the counties upstream in an effort to recoup the costs. But the farm lobby is so powerful that not only did they lose the lawsuit, the Des Moines Water Works now faces potential elimination.
Industrial farming has economic impacts as well. Farm consolidation has gobbled up small farms (over the last 15 years, Iowa lost 8,100 farms), resulting in fewer jobs, and less money overall going into local economies. And since the larger farms are run by corporations, much of the money that is made ends up out-of-state. Rural communities are literally drying up, and many small towns in Iowa look like sad ghost towns.
Farming, and eating, are complicated. It’s not as simple as an “organic” label. Food is one of the main ways most of us regularly connect with our environment, and we are rightly concerned about where our food comes from. Our choices have consequences, for the environment, the economy, and society. Places like EARTH are teaching a new generation of farmers about true sustainability in the food system. Let’s hope consumers are on board.